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Meet the 'Nominals' who are drifting from Judaism and Christianity

(RNS) They're rarely at worship services and indifferent to doctrine. And they're surprisingly fuzzy on Jesus.

(Text added by RNS) Name Tag out line

(Text added by RNS) Name Tag out line

These are the Jewish Americans sketched in a new Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of whom said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry and just 15 percent who said it’s about religious belief.

But it's not just Jews. It's a phenomenon among U.S. Christians, too.

Meet the “Nominals” -- people who claim a religious identity but may live it in name only.

They’re proud -- but not practicing -- Catholics. They're Protestants who don’t think Jesus is essential to their salvation.

And they’re Jews who say they belong to the tribe by way of ancestry or culture, not religion. Indeed, many miss the most fundamental divide between Judaism and Christianity: The Pew survey found 34 percent of Jews say it’s OK to see Jesus as the Messiah and still call themselves Jewish.

“They are not saying Judaism can allow belief in Jesus. They are saying if you are born a Jew, reared as Jewish and convert to Christianity, I still consider you a Jew,” said Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, and a co-author of the Jewish study.

Catholic researchers see similar expressions of team loyalty melded with theological confusion.

Sacraments Today, a 2008 study by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found most Catholics (77 percent) are proud to be Catholic but:

  • Only 55 percent say they are practicing their faith.
  • Most say they can be good Catholics without going to weekly Mass (68 percent)
  • Helping the poor and needy is a moral obligation for most (68 percent) but fewer people (61 percent) see the sacraments as essential.
  • Less than half of Catholics (43 percent) look to the pope and bishops when they make moral choices.

Each generation’s views on sacraments, Mass, and moral life also are less tied to Catholicism than their parents'. Only half of the so-called "millennials" (born after 1983) say they’re “proud to be Catholic.”

When CARA tallies the number of U.S. Catholics, it lists 66.8 million counted by the church, but 78.2 million according to surveys that ask people their religious identity.

Protestants, too, stray from core Christian teaching while clinging to the Christian label.

“‘Survey Christians’ are often people who feel guilty saying they are not as religious as their parents," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "They don't want to say ‘atheist’ -- since that's way too far -- but they are not really ‘committed,’ so they just say ‘Christian’ since it is the default category from their heritage.”

That lack of doctrinal knowledge is especially apparent when researchers cut to the theological core: questions of salvation.

In a 2011 LifeWay survey of pastors and people who attend Protestant churches, one in four churchgoers (26 percent) agreed that "If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity."

This is also particularly true among the young. A separate LifeWay study of 1,200 young adults under age 30 found:

  • Nearly three in four (72 percent) call themselves “more spiritual than religious.”
  • More than two in three say they rarely or never pray with others, attend worship services, or read the Bible or other sacred texts.
  • More than one in four (28 percent) said God is “just a concept,” and four in 10 said the devil is merely a symbol.
  • Only half said that “Believing in Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven."

Thom Rainer, the president of LifeWay Christian Resources who cited the research in his book on these 18-to-29-year-old millennials, called the Nominals “mushy Christians."

"Most," he said, "are just indifferent.”

Still, Nominals care enough to choose some kind of label to identify, however thinly, with a religious tradition. Put another way, Nominals are not synonymous with the "Nones," the one in five Americans who claim no religious identification.

Yet both groups may share a characteristic: They are unlikely to age into religious practice beyond personal prayer, said author and scholar Phyllis Tickle. She is working on a new book about the growing closeness of Jewish and Christian expression in America.

“The old saw is that after they married and had children, people would come back to organized faith. It is not true now. People under 40 are not returning to their inherited church,” she said.

In her studies on contemporary Christianity, she sees it morphing from “inherited, hierarchical, location-based (churched) faith” toward forms that discard those strictures.

Believers today are still interested in a communal expression of faith. They just want a more “nimble” religion, she said. She's also optimistic, saying, “We are in pretty good shape as believers.”

Another scholar, Diana Butler Bass, author of "Christianity After Religion," has a slightly different forecast.

"I suspect that many Nominals will move toward None, while a smaller percentage will embrace their inherited faiths in more personal, experiential ways," said Bass. "Generally, being part of a faith tradition 'in name only' will be increasingly hard to maintain as society grows more accepting of people who have no religious ties."


  1. What I find funny is the reaschers viewed the nones relationship to doctorine, not their faith or expression of their faith. Doctorine is a fence to define us from them. Maybe the nones are seeing that only creates strife and mistrust. Maybe the none care more about people than doctrine.

  2. There have been “nominals” since the time of Paul. For Judaism, even longer. Yet both faith traditions persevere.

  3. Good work, Cathy. Language is finally catching up with practice to differentiate this group.

  4. Unfortunately, many of those traditions are “man-made” and not based on God’s laws and principles found in his Word, the Bible.

  5. Hope for the future herein!

    When humanity accepts the fundamental tenet that most religions and religious traditions have been constructed for the same purposes all around the globe and that, perhaps, none have it right we’ll begin to get along better.

    Hope and prayer…..that we evolve out societal beliefs without the “mine is better than yours” tragic sort of faith.


  6. Eh, I’m not too thrilled with the way this was covered. Yes, it’s certainly true that Mainline Protestants are becoming more theologically liberal, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t understand doctrine. It means we’re redefining our doctrine, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and it’s a thing that tends to happen over time in any given religious tradition. So it’s not that we’re Christians in name only, it’s that we’re exploring new ways to be Christians in a postmodern, scientifically informed age.

    Note that the article cites a lot of research from Lifeway, which is an Evangelical group. Of course if you ask conservative evangelicals whether or not mainlines are real Christians, they’re going to say no, as in Thom Rainer calling us “mushy Christians”. That just doesn’t work as an umbrella statement. It applies to some folks and in some places, but it’s like this: we can no longer deny that Neo-Darwinian evolution is a real thing, nor with the discovery of carbon dating can we cling to the notion that the earth is only around 7,000 years old. Nor can we, when we acknowledge the cultural/historical dimension of religious experience simply condemn good people to hell, simply because they happened to be born into a time and/or place where Christianity was not the cultural norm, or perhaps even present at all. Especially in this pluralistic age, when people of other faiths are no longer some foreign “other” but are our next door neighbors, it becomes difficult to do that. In short, we’re Christians. We follow Jesus, we base our faith on the Bible (though not a literalistic reading of it), but we’re also educated and progressive. The refusal to cling to doctrines that can not be defended against scientific and cultural/historical research does not lessen our faith, or our identity.

  7. Count this 62 year old among the Nominals.Unlike those cited I have an orthodox Reformed view of Christianity. I study the Bible as always and incorporate some Reformed author into my daily experience. Jesus as Savior is foremost in my mind and heart daily.
    But I and my wife have grown tired of the leadership of most churches. The lifetime Elders who don’t have strong Reformed doctrinal underpinnings, those with poor managerial skills, the cliques that exclude and a laity that attends on Sunday but isn’t there mentally and that doesn’t show up on other days especially those that are work days.
    Especially distasteful are the extravaganzas rolled out for Christmas Eve designed to impress the once or twice a year nostalgia tourists. We’ve been to some while traveling that were nothing more than fund raising rituals.
    We don’t think this was what Jesus had in mind when He came to call His people together.

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